If you’re a young writer, or just beginning to write after raising kids or completing a career, you should already be impatient with most everything I’ve written above. You want to GET AT IT. You’re burning to GET STARTED. Hey, have at it. Don’t let Mr. Mid-list Fuddydud hold you back. On occasion we are bursting with anger, love, creativity; ideas are coming from our ears like butterflies, and we need to set them free–see how they fly, see where they land. So go ahead and start–don’t listen to me–because the rules of writing are made to be broken.
However, to break the rules successfully, you first need to know them. I’m talking here about some fundamentals of writing, which include clear sentences, solid grammar and punctuation, and an eye toward rhetorical mode (a fancy phrase for the various shapes, or forms of writing, such as narration, compare/contrast or analogy). Don’t worry about spelling, and not because we all have Spell Checker-type programs on our computer– they can defiantly cause Miss steaks. Lots of famous writer, notably F. Scott Fitzgerald, were lousy spellers (see his letters), but he had larger fish to fry, as should you. You can take care of the spelling later (along with your uncertainty about commas). Your main job is to express clearly an important sensation or thought. Or, it you’re a fiction writer, to tell a good story well.
The Fundamentals; Or, The Least You Should Know About Writing
In my career of teaching writing, I often ran into bright, energetic, passionate college-age writers whose creativity far outstripped their grammar and punctuation. They had no shortage of great ideas, and no shortage of pages for me to read. But in terms of publishing their work, they were doomed. A New York editor once told me, “I’ll read somebody’s work until they give me an excuse to stop.” An egregious grammatical or punctuation error is red flag enough for that editor; then it’s on to the next manuscript in the pile. As a college teacher, my experience with student papers was not so different. I could usually predict the essay’s grade by the end of the first paragraph.
Do not have to be fancy, but they do have to be complete, correct and continuous if you expect to be published (more about Continuity, later). “Complete”, however, is relative; if you’re writing a formal essay, you cannot have sentence fragments. Which really stick out. However, if you are writing fiction, or certainly poetry, you often might use fragments for stylistic purposes (more about Style later).
Sentences come in a limited number of types, which might be useful to review just to see their patterns. Notice in the previous sentence the dependent clause attached with a comma to a perfectly good short sentence. If you like short sentences, read Hemingway or early Raymond Carver; if you like longer sentences, read Poe and Faulkner. One the best long sentences of all time opens Poe’s story “Masque of the Red Death.” For a pleasing balance of short and long–and sentence fragments used for effect–read Alice Munro’s short stories, as well as Jane Hamilton’s novels.
Is the glue that holds long and short sentences together, but there’s a better metaphor still. A long time ago, when I was just starting my teaching career, I took an extra class for extra money. A night class. A group of engineering types who would get a pay raise if they took some English credits. I was young, they were not happy to be there, and only by desperation did I find a metaphor that we all could work with.
Because of their engineering background, they were used “breaking things down.” Which is where we started. I asked them to think of and name the smallest unit of an engine–a good old-fashioned V-8 motor. They seized on that quickly, starting with a nut, then a bolt, then valves, springs, crankshaft, block, heads, carburetor–the whole assembly of an engine.
Then I explained that the same thing can be done with the English language. I asked them to name the smallest unit equivalent to a nut. They easily enough answered, “a letter.” With a little help from me, we went outward from there, attaching part to parts: individual letter, syllable, word, phrase, clause, sentence, paragraph, essay/story, chapter in a book, book, book in series, etc. I used up plenty of chalk writing examples on the board as we “assembled” the language, and their confidence level seemed to grow. I didn’t rush this analogy, but let it play out over a couple of classes. Along the way, I seized the moment to talk about sentence types, and deductive paragraphs versus inductive ones (just invert them, I explained), and they warmed to the logic of grammar, usage and syntax. Then we came to punctuation. “So in our English-to-engine analogy, what is punctuation?” I asked (not having a good answer, which is the true fun part about teaching). A lone hand shot up. “Punctuation would be to English like spark and timing is to an engine. It keeps everything moving forward in rhythm.”
“Exactly!” I said (some times teachers have to be shameless), and seized this moment to show how commas work, and the beauty of the semicolon as it connects and balances two closely related sentences. In 25 years of teaching, that remains one of my highlights of teaching–and learning–in the classroom.